When Should You Worry About an Insect Sting?

Injuries usually minor, but serious cases often require medical care

Woman shows effects of an insect sting on her neck.

Injuries usually minor, but serious cases often require medical care

Insect stings are common and can happen anywhere — at the park, in your backyard, in the wooded area that you like to hike.

Most insect stings are harmless and cause nothing more than minor discomfort. But some can trigger a serious allergic reaction or infection that requires medical treatment. About 100 people die every year from allergic reactions, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

“Most of the time, bee stings or bug bites are not serious and can be treated at home,” says Saeed Afaneh, MD, a family medicine physician at Scripps Coastal Medical Center San Marcos. “However, some people are extremely sensitive to insect bites and stings and can experience a severe reaction that requires emergency care.”

It’s important to recognize and monitor symptoms of an insect bite or sting and seek medical care when necessary. Bees, wasps, yellow jackets, hornets and fire ants are common insects that sting.

Symptoms of an insect sting

Localized pain, itching, swelling and redness are common symptoms of an insect sting that can be treated at home. “But if the affected area spreads rapidly or if there are breathing problems or dizziness, it is something that needs immediate medical attention,” Dr. Afaneh says.

Emergency care for a severe reaction may include the use of epinephrine, also known as adrenaline.

Symptoms of a severe allergic reaction include:

  • Difficulty breathing, swallowing
  • Hives over large part of the body
  • Fainting or dizziness
  • Tightness in throat or chest
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Swollen face, mouth or throat
  • Loss of consciousness

Stings can be life threatening if they happen in the mouth, nose or throat as swelling in these areas can cause problems breathing.

What should you do in case of an insect sting?

Only honeybees leave a stinger. If stung by one, remove the stinger as quickly as possible. Use a fingernail or credit card edge to scrape it off.

Wasps, hornets and yellow jackets can sting multiple times. Fire ants bite and sting.

Common home remedies for stings include:

  • Washing the affected area with soap and water
  • Applying an ice pack to reduce pain and swelling
  • Avoiding scratching the sting area
  • Using over-the counter anti-itch creams, oral pain relievers, antihistamines to reduce itching and swelling

Tips to prevent insect stings

The best way to prevent a sting is to keep a safe distance. Insects that sting strike when their nest is disturbed, or they feel threatened. If attacked, run to get away from stinging insects. If possible, go indoors or to a shaded area.

“If you see a bee or bees hovering, leave the area,” Dr. Afaneh says. “Don’t swat at bees, hornets or wasps because it could lead them to sting.”

Hire professionals who have the proper safety equipment to remove a nest or hive.

Other steps to prevent insect stings include:

  • Wear hats and clothing that provide full coverage
  • Wear neutral, not bright colors, avoid floral patterns
  • Avoid perfume and scented lotion as these can attract insects
  • Keep food and drinks covered
  • Use insect repellent

Protect your child from insect stings

Pediatricians recommend several ways to protect children from insect stings. Children who are allergic to insects, for example, should wear a medical alert necklace or bracelet.

Be aware that children like to explore and can easily come into contact with insects that sting without proper supervision.

“If your child is at risk for severe allergies, don’t allow him or her to play outside alone when stinging insects are active,” Dr. Afaneh says. “Parents should also check for nests in areas where children play.”

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